London – That reigning champion England is the team to beat heading into a Six Nations is not unusual.
That the entire 2021 tournament is scheduled to be played without spectators, however, makes it like no other before it even kicks off.
Rugby Union got used to staging international matches behind closed doors when the coronavirus pandemic took hold last year.
Nevertheless, there will still be something unnerving about the eerie quiet that will greet the players during this weekend’s opening round of matches at what would normally be a trio of sold-out venues, be it the Stadio Olimpico (Italy vs. France), Twickenham (England vs. Scotland) or the Principality Stadium (Wales vs. Ireland).
A year when a British and Irish Lions tour follows the Six Nations would usually add an extra edge, but the impact of COVID-19 means the future of the 2021 series in South Africa remains in doubt.
There were concerns that even a Six Nations without fans could be thrown into chaos when the French government questioned the tournament’s health protocols.
Sports minister Roxana Maracineanu, however, gave tournament officials some welcome news when she cleared France’s participation by saying teams would be “in a bio-secure bubble, like the Tour de France.”
The need for continued vigilance was emphasized when Wales announced Wednesday it had suspended winger Josh Adams for its opening two games following a breach of health protocols.
As for the rugby itself, those expecting England to play a more expansive game may be disappointed.
There was a feeling that England, whose only loss last year came in its tournament opener against France, was not making the most of its resources in playing a forward-dominated, kicking game.
But unapologetic coach Eddie Jones made it clear he wants England to “dominate” in whatever way it can.
“Some games it might be through the set piece, some through the breakdown, some ruck and run, some ruck and kick,” the Australian explained.
Inevitably, France’s win over England and the way a largely second-string Les Bleus pushed Jones’ men close before a sudden death extra-time defeat in the Autumn Nations Cup final, has led to speculation that their fourth-round clash at Twickenham on March 13 could decide the title.
Certainly a France side that is developing impressive depth ahead of staging the 2023 World Cup has a formidable attack led by scrumhalf Antoine Dupont, while having also tightened up its defense under the guidance of English assistant coach Shaun Edwards.
Yet, one of the features of the Six Nations is a potential for upsets.
Scotland, for example, has not defeated England at Twickenham since 1983, although it came desperately close in a 38-38 draw two years ago after rallying from 31-0 down.
The fact England captain Owen Farrell and other Saracens players have not played a competitive match since the Autumn Nations Cup will probably help their cause, as will the lack of spectators.
Wales finished a lowly fifth last year as coach Wayne Pivac had a tough initiation following Warren Gatland’s successful spell in charge and he may revert to some more familiar personnel this season.
Ireland coach Andy Farrell also seems caught between the need to build for the 2023 World Cup and the demands of the present as he tries to keep his veteran halfback pairing of Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton going.
Italy, meanwhile, is desperate to end a six-year run of 27 successive Six Nations defeats. An injury to flanker Jake Polledri won’t make it any easier.
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